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Vegetarian Diets

May 5, 2002

Vegetarian diets can be very healthful if well planned. Vegetable-based diets tend to provide more fiber, less cholesterol, and less saturated fat than meat-based diets. For these reasons, vegetarians tend to be at lower risk for getting several diseases, including heart disease, some forms of cancer (breast and colon), hypertension, gallbladder disease, and type 2 diabetes.

There are several types of vegetarian diets:

– Lacto-ovo vegetarians include milk products, eggs, and plant foods.

– Lacto-vegetarians include milk products and plant foods.

– Ovo-vegetarians include eggs and plant foods.

– Vegans include only plant foods and avoid all animal products.

Protein requirements can be easily met in any of the diets that include milk products and/or eggs. The vegan diet must be planned a bit more carefully to ensure adequate protein intake.

It’s important to get the full complement of amino acids to assure adequate substrate for endogenous protein synthesis. Animal foods contain a balance of all 20 amino acids and are sometimes referred to as “complete proteins” for that reason. Plant foods have the same amino acids, but individual plant foods may not contain balanced amounts of all 20 amino acids, so they may be referred to as “incomplete proteins.” For example, grains tend to be low in an amino acid called lysine, yet they have plenty of another amino acid called methionine. Legumes (dried beans, split peas, and lentils) are high in lysine but low in methionine. It was once believed that grains and beans had to be eaten at the same meal to complement each other and form a complete protein. Now it is accepted that eating them in the same day is good enough. The focus should be on eating a well-balanced and varied diet from day to day.

Restricting all animal foods, as the vegan diet does, may result in other nutrient deficiencies. Again, careful planning can prevent problems. The nutrients most likely to be lacking in the vegan diet are calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. It’s important to seek out these nutrients.

Here are some suggested sources:

*Vegetarian calcium sources include calcium-fortified tofu, calcium-fortified soymilk, and calcium-fortified juices. (Keep in mind that most individuals with diabetes have to be cautious regarding juice intake or risk hyperglycemia.) Other sources include dark green leafy vegetables, legumes (especially soybeans), fortified cereals or breads, almonds, and tortillas processed with lime. (By the way, lime is calcium carbonate.) Adequate intake of calcium is important for everyone, but especially children, teens, pregnant women, and lactating women. So, if in doubt, supplements are available to assure sufficient intakes.

*Vegetarian iron sources include enriched grains, enriched cereals, enriched breads, skins of potatoes, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, and wheat germ. Eating vitamin C at the same time greatly enhances absorption of the vegetable-based, non-heme iron. Foods that are high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi, cantaloupe, tomatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, bell peppers, and cauliflower. (I bet some of those surprised you!)

*Vegetarian zinc sources include whole grains, wild rice, wheat germ, bran, legumes, and nuts.

*Vitamin D is sometimes added to soymilk. Vitamin D can also be made in the body when the sun shines on your skin. You don’t need to grease up and lie in the sun, either. Just a few minutes a day of mild exposure on your face and arms is enough. Be sure not to get too much exposure or to get burned. Excess exposure to the sun’s rays increases the risk of skin cancer.

*Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) sources are tough to come by if you don’t use any animal products. Apparently, cooked seaweed offers some vitamin B12. Some soy beverages are fortified. Some breakfast cereals are fortified. If you don’t include those products, you should take a vitamin B12 supplement.

Note: Some vegetarian mineral sources are less bioavailable than animal sources because of phytic acid and oxalic acid, which decrease the absorption of dietary minerals. Phytates are found in whole grains, and oxalates are found in some leafy vegetables. These substances bind with minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron and inhibit absorption.

Soy Protein, a Healthy Alternative

Soy protein offers a healthful alternative to meat. Soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids. A diet rich in soy foods can actually reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering LDL and VLDL cholesterol levels, as well as triglycerides. Studies have shown that eating 25 grams of protein from soy foods each day reduced LDL cholesterol in the blood by as much as 10 percent. (This means 25 grams of protein, not 25 grams of product weight. Read the food labels for the grams of protein supplied.) Soy isoflavones have also been shown to inhibit LDL oxidation.

How to Add Soy to Your Diet

Many meat-substitute products are on the market. They tend to be good sources of protein, don’t have cholesterol, and are generally low in fat. Read the food labels. Lowfat is defined as 3 grams of fat per serving or 3 grams of fat per ounce. Available items include tofu, tofu burgers, tofu hot dogs, tofu bologna, soy sausages, veggie-breakfast links, soy cheeses, veggie ground round, marinated tofu cutlets, tempeh, and texturized vegetable protein (TVP) products. Go ahead, fire up the grill! Throw on some tofu burgers! Or make your own chili with veggie ground round. Give the breakfast links a try. You might be surprised at how good they are–and there’s not one speck of cholesterol.